Now that Hamilton is accessible to more viewers than ever before, its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda faces intensifying censure. His talent and activism are legendary. Yet he’s also resurrected a literary form long decried as antiquated and conservative — a form at odds with a political moment in which demands for social justice have soared. I’m not talking about the American musical — one of our greatest cultural exports — but the epic poem.
Epic’s few success stories include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. They aren’t widely read anymore, but the poet John Dryden summarized a commonplace in 1697 when he called the genre “the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform” for the artistic range and synthesis that it demands. A translator of the Aeneid during another period of political tumult, he was also aware that epic is never without its ideological agenda. On the one hand, it’s the literary mode most committed to examining the rewards and costs of — and even the devastation wreaked by — the human ambition to achieve renown before death, to seize one’s shot. On the other, it aspires to universal truth, by placing heroes in situations that exemplify a nation’s collective, often hegemonic, values (notoriously in examples like Camões’ Lusiads and Tasso’s Jerusalem Liberated, which celebrate Portuguese exploration and Christian victory in the Crusades, respectively).
Hamilton deserves to join this company; it is nothing less extraordinary — virtuosic, rare, and maddeningly nuanced — than the successful verse epic that US culture has always lacked.
This is more than a matter for pedants. Understanding how Hamilton participates in the epic tradition clarifies the ambivalent response that it has recently evoked. It is a call to approach Miranda’s masterpiece as other scholars of epic have approached their subjects, but in light of anti-racist activism: to acknowledge Hamilton’s brilliance, to interrogate its ideological commitments, and to heed those moments when the show diverges from them. It’s a way of analyzing the musical on its own terms, of not “canceling” it because it fails the aesthetic and political standards we might apply to a different kind of art, but instead considering how its “unholy mix” of conservative and progressive tendencies is part of the musical’s significance to a 2020 America that needs a closer engagement with its text, epic technique, and message. In short, it’s a path towards appreciating Hamilton that does not depend upon arguing that the show’s good qualities outweigh the bad but understanding how it compels even reluctant audience members to confront the injustices that exist in America still today.
Hamilton as Epic
Though Miranda hasn’t acknowledged his inheritance of a heroic framework from Chernow and the Founder himself, Hamilton boasts enough traits of the genre to be considered epic.
On the level of form, the encyclopedic organization of musical styles — from rap to hip-hop to love ballad — into a cohesive whole parallels Milton’s fusion of tragedy, epyllion, hexameron, and others in Paradise Lost. What’s more, Hamilton’s scope — the Founder’s entire life — is far wider than almost any other musical’s (or tragedy’s), but with enough focus on Hamilton’s role in the country’s founding that it avoids chronicle history.
On the level of content, the epic aspects of Hamilton are extensive: heroic ambition interfering with relationships (with Washington, his wife Eliza Schuyler and her sister Angelica, etc.); a potentially-ruinous affair (with Maria Reynolds, like Dido or Circe); his role in a transitional moment; rap battles (a mix of Homeric vaunting and epic counsel scenes, which trouble dichotomies between so-called “oral” and “literary” epic); an obsession with death; memorializing and mourning the deceased (e.g., Laurens, Philip Hamilton, Hamilton himself, etc.); prophecies; and the negotiation of evolving models of leadership (fighting vs. governing). In fact, the musical’s entire structure follows an epic pattern: war, a journey to find oneself, and then death to ensure glory, organized so that one naturally leads into the other — so that sacrifices sensibly contribute to an acceptable end.
Hamilton as Monument(al Text)
These epic qualities allow the show to present its scholar-hero as the paradigmatic American — “young, scrappy, and hungry” just like his country — and so rationalizes the costs of our national experiment. In fact, Hamilton’s rise from poverty to prestige dramatizes the American Dream, that most sacred, celebrated, and derided of narratives in the United States.
This is typical of epic and explains why heads of state have spent so much time and money supporting it — why Augustus valued Virgil, why Tasso mattered to the counter-reformation, why both Dick Cheney and Barack Obama have raved about Miranda. Each of these poets stabilizes a particular, positive, image of his community. They make their nations’ interests seem self-evident, their policies, inevitable steps towards a pre-ordained telos, their histories, extending across time and space, enveloping, and subordinating anything that gets in the way. They also firm up the national archetype by contrasting him with an “other” (though not always a racial one): Virgil’s impetuous Turnus; Camões’ monstrous Adamastor; Tasso’s “Saracen” Argante. So too, Miranda’s Aaron Burr, who more closely resembles Virgil’s Aeneas for his composure than the Turnus-like title role. In the process, epic must flatten out any kind of threat to its ideology, which means eliminating opposing voices.
There is, in this formal need for coherent ideology, a reason why Hamilton downplays slavery: preserving America’s image as a land where advancement is possible no matter what. Though heroic poetry is not monolithic, David Quint (and others) has emphasized that this ideological smoothness has become its dominant paradigm since Virgil. Other contributions have to conform or make a point of subverting these conventions. Hamilton often does the former by celebrating an American ideal that was never truly operative in the first place.
But Miranda’s genius — for his was no mean feat, no matter the result — is that he managed to do what many thought was impossible (especially in a modern word of individuality and secularization): to create an epic of national origins that demystifies a diverse country to itself and to the world by casting actors of color in a distinctly American art form and idiom.
Hamilton’s “Other” Voices
Like other epics, then, Hamilton risks becoming a (textual) monument akin to statues of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson — to paraphrase many reductive, #CancelHamilton supporters. But unlike statues, epic allows — indeed, relies upon — counter-perspectives. Silencing subversive voices means introducing them in the first place, and once these viewpoints work their way into texts, they regularly become more compelling than official party lines. Tasso so agonized over this inevitability that he was eventually incarcerated in an asylum.
One could also note that epic poets since Tasso have discussed how their versions of history are not what happened. Or that Miranda presents the Founders not necessarily as they were but as they should have been, to edify audiences, another epic strategy. But many commentators are now scrutinizing the historical record. Far fewer analyze Miranda’s text itself. Let me identify just a couple of moments when other voices capture our imagination by doing just that.
Contrary to what some have argued, slavery consistently finds a way in. When the pompous Jefferson first sings, “And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted / Away across the waves, [Hamilton] struggled and kept his guard up,” he might be trying to tuck away the institution’s cost in a subordinate clause but reminds us that some odds against advancement really are insuperable. The same goes for another of Jefferson’s lines (right after we see ensemble members involved in slave labor) that Roxane Gay has complained is played for laughs — “Sally [Hemings] be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it [i.e. a letter]?” — but which emphasizes how the carefree Jefferson condescends to a woman who’s never gotten to be carefree in her life. Most astoundingly, when Eliza eventually sings, “I speak out against slavery. / You could have done so much more if you only had — // Time,” the obvious reading is that Hamilton didn’t do much to allay slavery at all.
Aaron Burr’s voice is similarly pervasive. It is he who frames the entire story of Hamilton — he who reminds us that his foe “exhibits no restraint. / He takes and he takes and he takes / And he keeps winning anyway.” This radical move begins to turn epic’s ideology in on itself, the equivalent of Virgil’s Turnus having more of a say than Aeneas in Aeneas’s own poem. Almost everywhere, in fact, polyphony overwhelms the single, hegemonic voice of Hamilton’s valorization — and the American Dream. We see this in “Non-Stop,” for instance, when the Aeneid’s chorus of voices — Turnus’s, Dido’s, Creusa’s, Palinurus’s — are recast with Angelica’s, Eliza’s, the chorus’s, George Washington’s, and many more, to convey the show’s central tension: its eponymous character’s obsession with his shot will be the very shot that kills him.
But it comes more drastically in the musical’s final song (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”), which unravels epic’s aspirations to naturalness by taking the playful artificiality of a poem like Ovid’s Metamorphoses to a new level — by showing just how constructed the genre is: heroes have to work to ensure their lasting reputations. Whether they persist is, in the end, contingent upon the flawed resources of human time, interest, and ability — in Hamilton, Eliza’s. Already, she has dealt a death blow to epic logic in “That Would Be Enough” — “We don’t need a legacy. / We don’t need money” — and echoed Dido’s funeral pyre in the Aeneid by burning her letters to an adulterous Hamilton (“Burn”). Now, Eliza exclaims, “I put myself back in the narrative… I interview every soldier who fought on your side,” and “I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings.” Together with Washington’s earlier message to Hamilton — “You have no control. / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” — these moments insist that Hamilton’s story of the Founders is only one, very unstable, version, encouraging others to compete with and possibly displace it. Plenty are.
Moreover, Hamilton’s widely-debated decision to cast most of the principals with actors of color (except for King George III, which suggests an allegorical reading perfectly at home in epic) means that in one sense, just about every voice in the show is “other,” brilliantly extending the strategy of translating marginalized voices into the center of the text that has been developed through other counter-hegemonic engagements with epic (e.g. Wheatley, Ellison, Atwood, and Walcott, discussed by scholars in the field of Black classicism, among others). It becomes an almost constant reminder that although the Founders developed a then-radical rationale for republican government against the colonial yoke, and although almost every American minority group has redeveloped these arguments to take strides for themselves, this fight is ongoing. Black, Native American, disabled, immigrant, Latinx, LGBTQ+, and female citizens must continually reiterate these claims (eight times a week on Broadway, for instance) to approach the privileges of white men 250 years ago.
But should we still watch, much less admire, Hamilton if all it offers to the most marginalized in society are “other voices”? I’m neither Black nor a person of color, and have the privilege to scrutinize textual minutiae, but as a disabled advocate whose research focuses on how epic was formative to an ideology of ability still oppressing people like me, I’ll concede that aesthetic brilliance isn’t reason enough to celebrate a text.
Yet Hamilton’s reinvention of the epic form, the show’s scathing, self-conscious subversion of its hegemonic ideology, its emphasis on the appeal of “other voices” unlike any other epic I know (Paradise Lost excepted) — pithily captured with the refrain “It’s not enough” — is.
I would even add Cheney’s affinity for Hamilton to this list. Arguably, epic rehashes the oppressor’s ideology to gain his trust before working in counsel, even rebuke, that would never reach him as obvious repudiation. So Virgil’s Aeneas anticipates Augustus before his grievous lapse in mercy; Milton’s God is a monarch before becoming the one true monarch; and Hamilton celebrates white Founders to emphasize that America’s greatness depends upon appreciating marginalized demographics, that a figure whom xenophobic leaders like Mike Pence admire is minimally different from the children they’re putting in cages. It’s devastating that a call for equal rights must be layered beneath its hegemonic counterpart, but speaking truth to power always has been, and always will be, a delicate, possibly dangerous, affair.
Nor is epic going anywhere. This is because the human need to understand our place in larger systems, our shared history, our relevance in the face of death, and our adoration of heroes — including first responders in the COVID-19 pandemic — isn’t going anywhere either. By paying attention to the form we can better engage with these urges; we can also develop a greater attention to the ambiguity, polyphony, and nuance that define our human condition.
Make no mistake, however: these aspects of Hamilton are not merely adjunct to its recasting of the American Dream; they are not afterthoughts or unintentional effects. They are integral to Miranda’s epic just as they were to his forbears’. They become inextricable to the genre’s drama, sweeping narratives, and examination of regnant formulations of human greatness with stories of war, adventure, and sex; they become essential to the genre’s remaining as exhilarating as anything humankind has ever produced. Of course, any good work of art’s message is more complicated than a particular ideology. But perhaps this is especially true of epic, the genre that investigates its hero and the concept of heroism writ large. Perhaps it’s true of Hamilton most of all. Lin-Manuel Miranda not only introduces the darkest aspects of America’s past into his musical but spotlights them; he uses a form that wants to resolve these kinds of blemishes to show that, in the end, they cannot be wished away. His story is indeed one of the American Dream, but any account that focuses only on this surface-level hegemony is, in the words of Miranda himself, simply “not enough.”